Andrew Dobbie is a teacher with the Peel District School Board. To get his attention, all that you have to do is express an interest in sustainable activities or reusing computers for the benefit of students. I had the opportunity to interview Andrew.
Doug: Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Andrew. My first question is always the same; do you recall the first time that we met in person?
Andrew: Thanks for inviting me to chat Doug! My memory is fading in old age🤣 but I believe we first met when BIT was held in Toronto before the shift to Niagara Falls.
Doug: We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a long time. Why would you want to follow me?
Andrew: I thought it was pretty obvious why people follow you, Doug. You help me sift through current media and provide me with useful, sometimes actionable resources each week🙌
Doug: Your passion for sustainable things is very evident to anyone who follows you on social media. Can you give us a sense of where your passion is with this?
Andrew: The root of my passion for sustainability is in providing learners with a quality education through equitable access to computers in their classrooms. My students needed help, so I researched a way to help them. Then, my students and I agreed that we should help everyone else.
Granted, the supportive team working with us exists throughout North America, Europe (in its infancy) and Iceland. We all work together to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Doug: My interest in following you comes from the conversations and interactions that we’ve had online dealing with Linux. You use it to breathe new life into old technology, often discarded. My interest was personal. I just wanted an alternative to Windows 10 for my 2010 Sony Vaio laptop.
Do you use Linux personally?
Andrew: Yes! I use Linux every day with my students. I am also well versed in Win10 and MacOS too🤣 I need to be comfortable with all operating systems because some of my students bring in their own devices and I need to be able to assist them with daily operational challenges/troubleshooting. I also dabble a bit with Android OS too just for fun. More along the lines of experimenting with converting different computing devices into hybrids running other operating systems. I’ve built some ChrMacbooks, converted old Windows computers into Linux devices, and even built one of the largest Android boxes using a massive desktop computer (as a joke- and it continues to be in operation today🤣).
Doug: Now, when a person dips their toe into the world of Linux, it can be a bit frightening. Long time Linux users go back to working the command line. apt-get, sudo, etc. Did you start that far back?
Andrew: I remember when I first tried terminal coding. I had no idea what I was doing. I have no formal training at all. Just YouTube, blogs, and Google Hangout guidance from a Linux expert, Aaron Prisk👍
Aaron continues to be a very patient and supportive teacher. He listens to my coding frustrations and helps me to find parallel understanding between our common language and that of terminal coding. I started to learn the verbs of the language and it helped me learn how to install, move, package, and assembly Aaron’s student-tailored Xubuntu OS. I still haven’t met Aaron in person. All our work has been completed remotely via Hangouts, Facebook IM, and now mainly via text message. So, yes. I use raw code in the terminal when constructing Linux FOG Servers and student-tailored Linux workstations.
Doug: Linux comes in many flavours. My first distribution was Ubuntu 4.04 and then the Edubuntu fork. What was your first?
Andrew: Oh wow! You’ve been at it a little longer than me. I started with Cub Linux and Lubuntu initially because they were packed so small and could fit on a 2GB USB for installations. Then, as I started dabbling with install on many different systems, I worked all the way back through history to Ubuntu 10, BSD, Linux plop, and all flavours after Ubuntu 10. Over the past 3 years, I have used and installed dozens of flavours to learn more about their unique strengths and differences but followed Aaron’s lead in using Xubuntu 16.04 for the first version of the student-tailored workstations.
Doug: Since that time, I’ve changed my allegiance and now run Linux Mint. What’s your favourite distribution?
Andrew: My friend Ryan, who is a data analyst and Linux junky, loves Mint too but my favourite continues to be Xubuntu because it provides me with all the necessary packaging tools to create the Linux student workstations.
Doug: You talk about using Xubuntu. Why this distribution?
Andrew: Aaron Prisk introduced me to Xubuntu (a developer version of Linux) because he was already using it to create his own districts’ student image for all of their computers in Pennsylvania. Lucky for me he was working through the process when I showed interest in learning it, and he took me under his wing (so to speak).
Doug: It’s golden when you find someone with that amount of interest and patience. If someone else was interested in getting started in this area, how do they get started?
Andrew: If anyone wants to learn how to install any Linux operating system, then I would suggest beginning with the USB installation technique. We created a gForm to walk new learners through the process:
It’s a little dated but it will help guide a new learner through the process.
Doug: I like the way that you’ve used the Google Form as a tutorial for the end user. Well done.
You’ve forged a number of partnerships over the year, especially with Renewed Computer Technology of Ontario (RCTO). How does that work?
Andrew: rcto.ca is an outstanding not-for-profit business who provide learning facilities with free desktop computers. Initially, I needed computers in my classroom because our school didn’t have the budget for them and I couldn’t afford to buy them. RCT Ontario helped us. We were lucky because they had tons of available computers back in 2016 when we first asked. They also had lots of LCD displays, which are a hot commodity and not easily available currently.
Essentially, if any learning facility needs free desktop computers, then they need to go to rcto.ca and request them. You will need to fill in a few online forms but be sure to request the free computers. They do offer some very affordable paid computer options as well (including a 1 year warranty), so they are a much better idea than buying new. The first batch of 150 desktops we received for free in 2016 is STILL in service, supporting student learning needs in our classrooms!
RCT will also be happy to answer your questions by telephone too, so if you need help just call them.
In September, I was asked to assist their IT department in establishing a Linux line of free computers, so I created a Xubuntu 16.04 FOG Server clone, and a Xubuntu 18.04 FOG Server clone. Both of which can deploy the student-tailored Xubuntu operating system on any computer 10 years old or newer.
Doug: One of the stumbling blocks that some might have with school districts is putting non-district computers on the network. How have you handled that?
Andrew: All school boards have always been open to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, so we explored and found success with multiple school boards by signing Linux computers onto board networks as BYOD devices. I was invited to York Catholic and Toronto Catholic boards to show their IT department heads how this process can work, and at that time (in 2017-2018 I believe) I created FOG Server clones for them to more efficiently deploy the student-tailored Xubuntu operating system onto their computers.
I think it’s important to note that all of this is free, and always will be.
Doug: That’s always been the claim for Linux and there are so many talented people driving that ship. We could always remind them that the Chromebooks that people buy new are running ChromeOS which is based on the Linux kernel!
How do you address concerns from teachers that running Linux doesn’t given them all of the applications that they would have on a Macintosh or Windows computer?
Andrew: Most teachers and students are running cloud-based programs these days anyway. My students never have a problem using Linux to run any gSuite, Office365, or any other web-based tools like Scratch, Robocompass, Explorelearning.com, you name it. They all work!
Some teachers have asked for special photo editing tools, so I showed them how pixlr.com runs perfectly through Google Chrome, and is easy for students to use.
Essentially, if an educator is resourceful enough, then he/she will find a comparable and free software tool that will run on their Linux systems. Yes, Minecraft too👍
Doug: Your plan also involves your students. How much training do they require before they are experts?
Andrew: Experts? Hmmm. I’m not an expert and they would say they aren’t either, I think. However, after having about a month or 2 of troubleshooting exposure and experience within our Tech Stewardship program, our Stewards are able to repurpose old computers easily. In fact, 3 of our newest Stewards just repurposed a teacher’s old laptop this past week and they just started in the program in September.
Granted, our Xubuntu FOG Server does make the repurposing process extremely easy to transform multiple computers into Linux machines with only a few key strokes.
Doug: What is the minimum requirement for a computer to be refurbished for your purposes? Do you limit it to old Windows computers or have you put Linux on Macintosh computers?
Andrew: Current minimum requirements for excellent performance running our Linux image would be 4GB RAM and about a 2.4GHz processor (not that much really). It will run fine with only 2GB of RAM as well but 4GB RAM and learners WANT to use Linux instead of brand new computers because they are faster.
Also, I recommend installing our Xubuntu student-tailored operating system on computers 10 years old or newer. Older than 10 years and we usually run into compatibility issues with hardware drivers and hardware begins to fail at times.
At this point in time, we have FOG Servers that can deploy Linux onto Windows computers easily. Regarding Macs, students love ChroMacbooks the most, and I used to hand code each one because the FOG server wasn’t designed for Macs😓. Each student-tailored ChroMacbook took about 2 hours to code about a year ago. Now, I simply open up the Mac. Remove the hard drive. Put the Mac hard drive into a windows computer. Change the hard drive to Linux using the FOG Server, then put it back into the Mac👍 Only takes about 15 minutes depending on the build.
Doug: You will be doing a session at the upcoming Bring IT, Together Conference. Can you give us a sneak peek?
Andrew: A sneak peek😕
On Wednesday morning, I will be bringing some of my special FOG Servers to make FOG Server clones for anyone that wants one. You just need to bring an old laptop (that turns on🤣) with you, and stop by. I will even show you how easy it is to use it. You can use it on site to repurpose any other laptops you bring with you🙌
When I’m not teaching the process, I can repurpose up to 50 computers an hour by myself. So, if you just want some help repurposing your laptops for student use in your classrooms, then bring them by on Wednesday morning.
I will also be sharing some of our work highlights at IgniteBit2019 on Wednesday evening, so feel free to connect with me there too👍
If you can’t attend the Wednesday session, then my students will be joining me on Friday morning to help attendees repurpose their computers with Linux too. So, we can build you a FOG server or student-tailored Linux laptop at that time as well.
Finally, I believe I will be bringing lots of free mini desktop computer towers for attendees to take back to their classrooms for their students to use. These mini desktop towers have been donated by rcto.ca and will include the tower, keyboard, mouse, and power cords (but unfortunately not LCD monitors due to short supply at the warehouse).
Doug: Wow. Come to Bring IT, Together and leave with a free computer. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts with us, Andrew. If people want to follow you on Social Media, where would they turn?
Some great ways to start connecting: